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An Interview with Sigrid Nunez

From Brick 108

A version of this conversation was broadcast on Writers & Company on CBC Radio One in 2021, produced by Sandra Rabinovitch.

I remember when Sigrid Nunez’s eighth title, The Friend, came out and three very different people— friends—told me how great it was, that I had to read it, and that I didn’t have to be a “dog person” to enjoy it. It took me a bit of time to get to it, but I’m happy to report it’s all true. And the literary world agrees: not only did the novel win the 2018 National Book Award, but it also attracted rave reviews and was hailed as “a subtle, unassuming masterpiece” and “a poignant exploration of love, friendship, death, grief, art and literature.” But there was another aspect to the book’s breakout success, as the New York Times headline proclaimed: “With The Friend, Sigrid Nunez Becomes an Overnight Literary Sensation, 23 Years and Eight Books Later.” Although her earlier work was well received and well respected, a bestseller was a new phenomenon.

Sigrid Nunez was born in New York in 1951, the youngest of three, to a Panamanian Chinese father and German war-bride mother. Her father worked in hospital kitchens and as a waiter in various Chinese restaurants. Nunez grew up in the projects, went on to study English at Barnard College, and later got a master of fine arts from Columbia University. When she graduated, she worked as an editorial assistant at the New York Review of Books.

Her first autobiographical novel, A Feather on the Breath of God (1995), was named the Association for Asian American Studies’ best novel of the year. She’s also won the Whiting Award, the Rome Prize, and various other literary awards. She’s the author of a fictional biography about Virginia and Leonard Woolf ’s pet, Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury (1998), and a highly regarded novel about friendship and political activism in the late 1960s called The Last of Her Kind (2006).

But more recently, Nunez has returned to an intimate voice, free-ranging, a kind of faux memoir that harks back to her first book. The Friend revolves around a woman whose best friend and mentor has killed himself. As Nunez has said, she wanted to explore the emotional aftershock of a suicide. To complicate the story—and make it quite marvellous—the narrator agrees to take care of the dog her friend had adopted: a 180-pound Great Dane.

Nunez followed up this remarkable novel with another work that features a similar voice and sensibility. What Are You Going Through also deals with death and friendship and grief, but this time the connection is with a friend who’s dying of cancer. Both novels are rich with allusions to movies, books, ideas, political urgency, imbued with Nunez’s capacious intelligence.

Sigrid Nunez spoke to me from her apartment in New York last May.

Eleanor Wachtel: Your two most recent novels are kind of companion pieces; they speak to each other and to us in different ways. They also converse with other literary works, including fairy tales. What is it about fairy tales? Why do they have such a presence in your work?

Sigrid Nunez: Fairy tales were some of my earliest reading and were, more or less, my introduction to literature. From the beginning, I loved fairy tales. My mother would read them to me. Once I learned to read myself, I would read them over and over again. I’d go to the library and come home with The Red Fairy Book, The Blue Fairy Book, The Yellow Fairy Book. That was a huge influence on me. The wonderful thing about fairy tales, the way they ring so true, is that anything can happen, no matter how strange. I also love the idea of metamorphosis: a person could become a tree or a bird. There are lots of animals in fairy tales, and I love stories about animals, and animals themselves. I feel like fairy tales have always been with me and have always been an inspiration to me.

Wachtel: In your latest book, What Are You Going Through, two old friends put aside other more contemporary reading in favour of a volume of the world’s best folk and fairy tales, stories of gods and heroes, princes and peasants, giants and little people, witches, tricksters, and animals, animals, animals. You mention these stories ringing true, but it’s interesting because at the same time, metamorphosis is so fantastic. What are the pleasures and truths these stories offer?

Nunez: There are these morals that if you behave one way, you’ll be punished, and if you behave another way, you’ll be rewarded. One of the basic stories from fairy tales and myth is that a stranger appears in some kind of need, poor and troubled and desperate for a cup of water or a piece of bread or a roof for a night. And certain people behave selfishly and don’t want to help this person, and other people behave with goodness and generosity. And then it turns out, in fact, that the stranger was some kind of powerful person in disguise, a king or a God. And then there’s a reward. Often that reward will be a marriage to that person, if the good person is a young woman. In a lot of fairy tales, cleverness is rewarded. There’s some kind of difficulty, some kind of challenge, some kind of test. If you show a certain amount of cleverness, you win. But often some being in the animal world or some supernatural figure helps you get through the test. There’s a kind of reality in the fairy tales. Bad things always happen in fairy tales, however they might end. And this is presented as the way of the world without any sentimentality. And that, I think, is an important idea to learn early on.

Wachtel: It’s important to learn that bad things happen in the world?

Nunez: It’s important to learn, yes. There’s an attitude toward children, as if they’re not able to take in certain things about the world. But children love fairy tales because they see that truth; they see the real world reflected in those stories. They don’t really need to be protected from that in the way that adults sometimes think.

Wachtel: The narrator in What Are You Going Through says that her own favourite story is “The Six Swans” from the Brothers Grimm. Is that yours too?

Nunez: I think that is, or at least was, my favourite fairy tale. I was taken by that story for a number of reasons. First of all, there’s the loyalty of the sister, who has been made to keep a vow of silence while her brothers have been bewitched and turned into swans. And meanwhile, she’s knitting garments for them. When she won’t break her vow of silence, she’s told she’s going to be burned as a witch. She’s on the pyre, still knitting away, trying to get that last garment done, when the swans appear. They land on the ground around her, and she throws a garment over each of them. But the last one isn’t finished yet; a sleeve is missing. So that brother transforms back into a human, but he keeps one left wing. And I’ve always had a thing about swans anyway.

Wachtel: What kind of thing about swans? Just their sheer beauty?

Nunez: Yes, their beauty. They’re magical creatures. I also studied ballet when I was young, and there is that association of swans with ballet.

Wachtel: Not only are there references to fairy tales in both your recent novels, the stories themselves in some ways have the shape of fairy tales. At certain moments, the central characters even look at their own experience that way: for example, the narrator of The Friend observes that she’s in one of those stories where a person is put to a test, one of those fables where someone encounters a stranger—could be human, could be beast—who’s in need of help. Have there been times in your own life when you’ve imagined yourself in a fairy tale?

Nunez: Not since I was a little girl. I was the kind of child who was always imagining she was some kind of a creature, always playing pretend: now I’m a horse, now I’m a rabbit or the mother of my stuffed animals, or my stuffed animals come alive during the night. I held on to that fantasy for a long time. That was a part of childhood imaginative play: imaginary friends. But it was different from actually imagining yourself in a story. For me, it was more like imagining that this was really the way life was. I remember I associated my mother with witches, in fact, partly because she had such a way with animals. She was so well known for being able to help animals in trouble that if people who lived in our area found a hurt or a stray animal, they would bring it to her. So I used to think maybe she was a witch.

Wachtel: Well, the good kind, if she was a healer.

Nunez: The good kind, yes. When you’re a child, you do things, and you think, I hid that so well. I cleaned that mess up so well. How does she know? It seemed to me that she had keen senses and sort of supernatural powers because I was totally unable to put anything over on her. She was extremely aware. She was very sharp.


Wachtel: You’ve said your novel The Friend began simply enough as a story about a woman grieving for a friend who killed himself. What was it about that situation that you wanted to explore?

Nunez: Before I started writing that book, I was aware that any number of people I knew had it in their heads that they might commit suicide. They weren’t making a cry for help. They weren’t making an attempt. I’m not talking about that kind of situation. But they had thought how they would leave this life at some time. And that struck me as quite remarkable. I had finished the book when one of those people did commit suicide.

Wachtel: And when you say remarkable, were you surprised or concerned that they could imagine ending their lives that way?

Nunez: I was concerned, but I probably wasn’t that surprised because so many people have suicidal thoughts, even if they never come close to it. It’s not like I’ve known many people who’ve committed suicide. It’s such a strange thing, no matter how much you see of it. It goes so against nature. Humans are the only animal that commits suicide. I feel like suicide is endlessly fascinating because it remains a mystery. You can never really understand what somebody is going through when they come to that extreme, except in cases where the person is dying, or something has happened to them, and they leave a note and they explain it. So often that’s not how it happens. The person does not leave a note or, even according to the people closest to them, clues that this was going to happen.

Wachtel: And you question whoever came up with the term note. I had never thought of it before because it’s almost like a single word, suicide note. It’s something your narrator turns over in her mind as she’s also thinking about various literary suicides or pacts or famous suicide sites.

Nunez: She does wonder, as I do, Why is it called a note? Why isn’t it called a suicide letter? In other languages, it’s not always called a note. It is called a letter of farewell or whatever. I also think the reason I was drawn to it as a subject is because so many writers commit suicide.

Wachtel: Do you have any theories about why that is? 

Nunez: I don’t really, but that’s what I mean about the mystery of suicide. People say that it’s partly because a person has to be alone a lot in order to be a writer. But many writers live rich social lives and have families and so on, even if they are doing their work alone. But it is true that depression is something that does afflict writers, many writers, and that would, of course, help explain it.

Wachtel: The narrator addresses herself to the friend who killed himself. He is the you to whom she’s speaking. What is it about the loss of this friendship that the narrator mourns so deeply? What kind of relationship did she have with this man?

Nunez: I think it has a lot to do with his connection to her past, to her youth. By the time he actually takes his life, they’ve fallen a bit out of touch, but they have known each other for decades. And although he was her professor, he was not much older than her. They’re basically the same age, same generation. She was a writing and literature student of his. And she did have an enormous crush on him. He was not in love with her. They had sex this one time. They were good friends before, and they remained good friends after, even though she was humiliated that he never wanted to be with her romantically again. And then he had three wives, and all three marriages ended with him being estranged from those women. Meanwhile, because they did not have a marriage, she and he were able to stay close. He was one of her oldest friends, somebody she greatly admired as a writer and as a thinker. And I don’t think their friendship was anything unique. In fact, many people have good friends they’ve known for a long time whom they might have felt romantically about at one time. It was a deep friendship, but there was nothing very unusual about it.

Wachtel: She says that unlike others, she never got her heart broken by this man. Should we believe her?

Nunez: The therapist doesn’t seem to believe her. She tells us that it seems to be the therapist’s view that she did get her heart broken. And that it was because of that and the unrequited nature of the love she feels for this man that she has remained single her whole life. So it’s certainly possible. That’s years after they’ve met. It’s clear that she could fall in love with him all over again at any time.

Wachtel: Reading this pair of novels, The Friend and What Are You Going Through, is like listening to someone share confidences. There’s intimacy and the irresistible pull of the tale unfolding. Can you talk about the voice in these books? It’s one that you say you’ve rediscovered.

Nunez: It isn’t something I think about consciously before I sit down to write. I was writing The Friend, and I knew it was going to be in the first person. I wanted it to have the tone of an intimate voice, the same tone you might have in a love letter, a hushed, intimate voice. I didn’t intend to have the entire narrative addressed to the mentor who commits suicide. I never thought of it as a letter. It was just the tone I was after. For part of the book, when she says you, she’s talking to him. But for whole other sections of the book, it becomes a straightforward first-person narrative. He disappears as the addressee. It came naturally to me. I went along. I finished the book. I felt the tone was consistent and the way I wanted it. When it was finished, I realized how close it was to my first novel, A Feather on the Breath of God. I realized that it was the same voice, the same sensibility, perhaps the same narrator, older. And then when I started What Are You Going Through, I recognized that this was the same voice and the same sensibility as The Friend. The narrator of What Are You Going Through, the way she thinks, the way she reflects, the way she sees things, the way she observes things—those are all exactly as the narrator of The Friend would think and reflect and observe. As you said, the two books seem to be in conversation with each other or are a pair. That is absolutely right. Not planned. But I feel that What Are You Going Through came out of The Friend.

Wachtel: And that first novel was autobiographical. I know that what happens in these novels didn’t happen to you, but in terms of the person who’s thinking and reflecting, and the voice, is that close to your own?

Nunez: My first book is the only book I’ve written that could really be called autofiction, even though a certain amount of it is fictional. However, all of them have elements from my own life, all of them have some autobiography in them, and in the most recent ones, the huge autobiographical thing there is the sensibility. The way these narrators see the world and human experience is certainly my own. I teach writing, just like the narrators of The Friend and What Are You Going Through. It’s clear there’s not a lot of distance between the author and the narrators. But neither of these two more recent books are autobiographical in the way of my first novel.

Wachtel: The Friend began with you thinking about friends and suicide, but then, as you’ve described it, a dog simply showed up. What happened?

Nunez: Yes. I don’t make outlines or big plans before I write a book. It’s just not the way I work. I started this book with the suicide of the narrator’s friend. I was thirty pages in when I decided that at the funeral, wife number three would say to the narrator, Do you mind if I call you? I want to talk to you about something. The narrator has no idea what. And she goes to meet this woman. I thought, What am I going to have her want from the narrator? It was almost like a childish feeling. Oh, I could have a dog in my novel. I could have a great big dog in my novel. I decided that that’s what would come next. And I do love animals. I’ve always wanted to write a book that had an animal that was an important character—a dog, which would be the most obvious choice because we have such a special relationship with dogs. I had written my book about Virginia and Leonard Woolf ’s pet marmoset. But that was largely non-fiction. I didn’t invent that story; that’s really in the Bloomsbury Archives. I enjoyed that very much, writing about the Woolfs’ pets, their monkey, their dogs. After that I thought it would be wonderful to have another animal in one of my books.

Wachtel: As you say, it’s an impressive dog, a giant dog, a harlequin Great Dane, meaning a striking white coat with black splotches, weighing 180 pounds. Why this particular type of dog?

Nunez: For one thing, that’s a breed I love. I had a dog, and it actually appears in the book. That part is autobiographical. I call the dog Bo, half Great Dane, half German shepherd. And my family got a Great Dane, but I was already out of the house by then. He was a huge, beautiful dog—not a harlequin—named Taurus.

First was the idea that her taking this dog is supposed to be a kind of test for her. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge. I knew I wanted it to be a big dog, a troublesome dog, and not some dog she could just carry around in her purse but one that was old, for one thing, ate a lot, was expensive, and that she couldn’t hide, as she lived in a place where her lease stipulated she could not have a dog. So it made sense to have it be this very large dog. And then I wanted the harlequin because I wanted to have that visual image. It is such a striking image. I used to go to a café on Greene Street that was a former art gallery. It was a large space. You could take your laptop there and work all afternoon if you wanted. Occasionally a woman came in with two dogs, and one of them was this enormous harlequin Dane. And the woman was so kind. She let me visit with the dog while she was reading her paper or whatever. I didn’t think about this until long after the book was finished. I’m sure that played a role in my choosing this particular breed and type for the character of Apollo, the harlequin Dane.

Wachtel: And there’s every reason the narrator shouldn’t agree when asked by her late friend’s wife to take in the Great Dane that he’d rescued. She lives in a small rent-controlled apartment that doesn’t allow dogs, but she takes him. Why?

Nunez: When I came up with this idea, I was thinking, What would you do?—by you, I mean everyone. She’s trapped into it to some extent. She’s in a certain state. She’s grieving. She’s bewildered. She doesn’t know why her friend committed suicide. And now this has been thrust on her. If she doesn’t take the dog, the dog will probably be destroyed. I guess she just doesn’t know how to say no. The thought is unbearable to her: if her friend could somehow know what happened to the dog, how terrible that would be for him. It’s silly, of course, because he’s dead, so he’s beyond feeling. I think it’s not so much that she feels for the dog at that moment; she just feels helpless to do anything else. She’s not thinking straight, as her friends keep telling her. She’s not thinking about the future, just that moment, one day at a time, as it were. And then, of course, she ends up developing a serious relationship with this dog.

Wachtel: The narrator meditates on our fascination with animals and their appearance in myth and folklore, and in particular, the canine-human bond. What makes it so interesting and unique?

Nunez: We really do have such a special relationship with dogs. We’ve bred them to be a certain kind of creature with a passionate attachment to people. There isn’t anything else like that: their incredible loyalty, their uncritical attitude toward people. I’ve known many people who have loved their dogs so much and have been so loved by those dogs. And dogs are the only animal we have that kind of relationship with. I mean, people love their cats too, and I think there’s nothing more special than the feline. But it’s a real, solid friendship that a person has with a dog. And when people lose their dog, lose the friendship of their dog, they suffer a lot and don’t always show it because they feel a certain amount of shame about it, that they shouldn’t be grieving this much: it was just a dog; it was just an animal and not another person. I have received so much mail from people who read The Friend and told me about their relationship with a dog, about losing a dog and how incredible their grief was. And I find that incredibly moving.

Wachtel: There’s a scene from fairly early in the novel where the narrator has just brought the dog Apollo home to her apartment and there’s a mention of Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye terrier who spent every night for over fourteen years at the grave of his master, who died in Edinburgh in 1858. Meanwhile, Apollo appears to be depressed. What do we really know about the emotional life of animals?

Nunez: I think we might underestimate how much dogs know and how much they feel. Their inability to talk, of course, means we can’t ever really know what’s going on with them. And what struck me so much about this situation in my book was that, as her mentor’s wife says, you can’t explain death to a dog. So here was this dog. One day, his best friend, the person he cared about more than anything in the world, just never came home. And I thought, We people can say, This person died and we’re not ever going to see that person again. But how does a dog figure this out? What happens to the dog, to the dog’s mind, to the dog’s heart, to the dog’s feelings? And in the case of dogs bred to be companions and, above all, protectors, isn’t it possible that they go through this trauma of thinking, Who’s protecting my master now? What kind of trouble might he be in? I should be there. I don’t think it is far-fetched to think this might happen in the dog’s mind.

Wachtel: As you said, the voice of the narrator in both The Friend and your latest novel, What Are You Going Through, is an older version of the voice in A Feather on the Breath of God, which, like a lot of first novels, was a story you had to get out of your system, your own family’s story. I’d like to hear a bit about your family. What was it like to grow up with immigrant parents from very different cultures? Can you talk a bit about them, their backgrounds, starting with your father?

Nunez: My father was half Panamanian and half Chinese. He was Chinese identified. That was his language. He did not speak Spanish at all. He worked in Chinese restaurants his whole life. He was working as an illegal alien in New York’s Chinatown when World War II broke out, and he ended up in the army and with the occupying forces in southern Germany, which is where he met my mother. She was a German war bride. He brought her to the States, and they lived in a housing project, the Brooklyn housing project in Fort Greene, the Fort Greene Houses. They moved to another housing project on Staten Island when I was about two. There were three daughters, and I was the youngest. My mother’s English became quite good, even though she always had this heavy German accent. My father’s English was never good. I was always fascinated by the idea of how they met, because when they did, they didn’t have a common language. All she had was some school English, and his English was quite poor. So it was a conflicted household. My mother’s idea was that she had these three children and that the children were hers, and she wanted to raise them as little German children, even though she never taught us the language when we were young. And my father was a withdrawn person. He worked all the time. He worked seven days a week, and he remained at such a distance from us. You could not get him to talk about his past, his life. So he was always a mystery to me. And that is one of the main reasons I wanted to write about him.

A Feather on the Breath of God begins: “The first time I ever heard my father speak Chinese was at Coney Island,” which is absolutely true. And my sisters and I, we said to our mother, “Why is Daddy singing?” That’s the way we heard it. We had run into some Chinese men there, friends of his from Chinatown. We never saw them again, nor did we ever meet any other of his Chinese friends. He had this whole separate life. And I always wondered, as I talk about in the book, if it would have been different if we had been sons instead of daughters. Maybe there would have been more of a relationship. The household was this very small apartment; nevertheless, the worlds of my mother and father were separate. And they did not get along. They stayed married. It was an unhappy marriage. My father died when he was sixty-two. I was in graduate school at the time. I wish I had been persistent in trying to find out about his life when I was younger because now all these questions will remain unanswered. I never met any of his relations. I never met any family on my father’s side.

Wachtel: Your mother was German. What did you know about her side of the family?

Nunez: When we were young, my mother took us to Germany and I met my grandmother. My grandfather had died by that time. My mother was a very nostalgic person. I was always hearing about Germany, the German life, German things. In the United States, Christmas morning is when you open presents. But we did so on Christmas Eve because that’s how the Germans do it. We didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, even though we were an American family. As I say, she was nostalgic. And she did talk a lot. She was the opposite of my father. But I didn’t really get to know my German relations either.

Wachtel: How do you think you were affected by being aware of your mother’s disappointment in her marriage?

Nunez: I’m not sure. I saw lots of other marriages as well, and I feel like what I’ve seen in marriage is reflected very much in the divorce rate, which I believe is 50 percent here. So many marriages did not seem happy or did not seem to work out. I certainly thought I would marry at some point and have a family, but I never did. I don’t think, though, that’s because of that unhappy marriage. I have two sisters, and they both married. In my first book I wrote about my parents’ marriage; that was something that did obsess me. As you say, a lot of first books are autobiographical because the writer seems to need to get something out of the way before she can go on to write other things. And I was certainly one of those writers. I wanted to reflect on that marriage and try to figure something out about and remember aspects of childhood and what it was like to grow up the child of immigrants who were not from the same place.

Wachtel: When you were growing up, how did you navigate the lack of communication?

Nunez: There was nothing to do but accept it. The first part of A Feather on the Breath of God is called Chang, and it’s about my father. When the book was published and I would read from it, quite a few Chinese Americans would say to me, Your father was not as unusual or strange or odd or eccentric as you think he was. A lot of that was because of his culture, about which I did not know a lot. For them, there was nothing unusual about the fact that he had never said to his children, I love you. That is not uncommon among Asian parents. So in a way, there was nothing to do growing up. You find yourself just having to accept it and make your own life. Whatever the cultural background, what young people do a lot is ignore their parents. They aren’t really thinking about their parents, I should say, until much later or when it’s too late. They don’t ignore them when they need them, and they don’t ignore them in all ways, but I think it would be an unusual preteen who would show a real passionate interest in what their parents were like when they were that age or what kind of dreams they have or what kind of relationship they have with their father. There’s a lack of curiosity, or at least there’s a lack of the intense curiosity one can have when one gets older.

Wachtel: Your latest novel, What Are You Going Through, also uses that straightforward narrative voice to explore another apparently simple idea that turns into something rich and moving. It’s about friendship, love, and death, and about stories themselves. The book began, you said, with the first line: “I went to hear a man give a talk.” The man, we later discover, is the narrator’s ex-partner, and it’s quite a talk he gives—cyberterrorism, bioterrorism, unmitigated disaster—arguing, among other things, against human reproduction. The narrator is warning about the end of things. But for her, the end of things is focused much more narrowly on her old friend who’s dying of cancer, the one she’s come to visit. In your previous novel, as we’ve just discussed, suicide was the theme. Here, it’s assisted death or euthanasia. What made you want to explore this idea?

Nunez: It’s interesting because here again I found myself saying, What would you do? The question was, What would you do if someone were to ask you to help them in this way? This is also something that has been on my mind, like suicide: this thing, this one experience that we all share. Everybody does have to leave this life at some point. Somebody asked me a question during a Q & A: Why are you so drawn to mortality? And I said, It’s more a question of mortality drawing me to it. When you start thinking about how you might leave this world, you then wonder, If I had a terminal illness and I knew for sure that there was no hope, how would I feel about euthanasia? How would I feel about taking my own life instead of going through agony and also not being myself at the end? You know, being in too much pain. It’s something I have thought about. Most people I know have thought about it, even if they’re not having big conversations about it. I did know early on that there would be this friend who had terminal cancer. And I let my mind go from there, one thing leading to another.

Wachtel: The narrator is ambivalent at first about helping her friend, who is not asking her to actually help her kill herself, but rather to be there with her because other people closer to her have refused, saying that they couldn’t bear it, that they would try to stop her. Did you by the end find an answer for yourself, what you would do? How do you think you would handle it?

Nunez: I really don’t know. This is something, again, similar to The Friend. The narrator says yes because she doesn’t know how to say no. When she first agrees, she’s horrified that she’s being asked this. Ultimately, she decides she will stay with her. And then the friend says, At some point I will take these drugs, but I won’t tell you the exact moment when I’m going to do it. And honestly, I can’t say I know what I would do. But there are a few places in the book where the narrator says, I’m doing this because I would want the same things she wants, and I would want somebody to be that friend to me. And I identify with that. I don’t think everyone feels that way, far from it. But a lot of people do feel that way.

Wachtel: The novel’s title comes from Simone Weil, the philosopher whom you quote in the epigraph, “The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him, ‘What are you going through?’” What does that line mean to you?

Nunez: I came across that a long, long time ago in one of her essays, and I thought it was so striking, so well put, and so true. And to me, it means exactly that. By saying to him, What are you going through? the implication is: I’m listening. I’m listening. It isn’t necessarily, Tell me what’s the trouble? What are you suffering? What’s going on? I will help. I will know what to do. You don’t know what it is, and you might be helpless in the face of whatever that person is going through. But the one thing you can do is give it your attention. And she’s saying that’s what “love thy neighbour” means.

Wachtel: It’s funny because I also came across that line a long time ago. But I was surprised in your book because you mention that in French the question sounds quite different. And that’s not something I had heard before in French. Quel est ton tourment? What is your torment?

Nunez: What is your torment? is not English. Nobody would ever say, I’m so sorry to hear about your torment, or, I can’t imagine what your torment has been. We don’t have an exact way of saying this, but the way we say it in English is What are you going through? There really isn’t any other translation for that. It means What’s ailing you? What is your trouble?

Wachtel: Friendship is a theme of both your recent novels, The Friend and What Are You Going Through. It’s maybe not as sexy or dramatic as romance, but it’s rich terrain. What interests you about friendship?

Nunez: Everything. Now there are a lot of novels about friendship. When I was coming of age, it wasn’t so common. Novels were generally about family and marriage and love, the idea being, I think, that a friendship is not as important as a love relationship or a family relationship. And to me, friendship has been undervalued in novels, in fiction. For example, it wasn’t that long ago that Elena Ferrante started writing her books about the friendship between two Italian women that started with My Brilliant Friend. Because it was so popular and beloved and it got so much attention everywhere, people made a big thing about the fact that it was about that friendship. That’s how unusual it was for the writer to give that kind of attention to a long, long friendship between two women. I think it’s very rich. It certainly has been for me because I’ve written a lot about friendship.

Wachtel: Stories are also at the heart of your work, interwoven, unfolding within each other. Most are stories of women’s experience; and women’s stories, the narrator of What Are You Going Through says, are often sad stories. Do you think that’s true?

Nunez: Some people have read that to mean men’s stories aren’t sad. Although I did write it and I did mean it, I say carefully: it’s kind of a stupid thing to say. It’s just something that sounds good and was an interesting way to introduce what was going to come next. But if you isolate it, if you press on that sentence, it falls apart. Yes, of course, women’s stories are often sad stories. But immediately you say, Compared to men’s stories? Does that mean all human beings aren’t human? Isn’t it true that many people’s stories are sad stories? I wouldn’t exactly say I was being facetious, but I was looking at the particular sense that this is a sad woman’s story because it’s about the sadness of being a woman. I didn’t mean the way in which women’s rights are sad; I didn’t mean that men’s stories aren’t equally sad because of course, they are.

Wachtel: There’s a refrain in What Are You Going Through: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” And it’s the opening line from Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier. Perhaps more so nowadays, I’ll hear someone say they don’t want to read or watch something sad. What do you think about that?

Nunez: In the book, these two women watch this wonderful movie, Make Way for Tomorrow, from 1937—the director is Leo McCarey—and it’s unbelievably sad. Orson Welles called it the saddest movie ever made. And they’ve watched it. They’re weeping. And it’s not that they regret having watched it because a good story, beautifully told, no matter how sad, lifts you up. So there are different kinds of sad. But if something is sad and meaningful and beautiful and moving in a certain way, I think it’s uplifting. I’ve always felt that way.

Eleanor Wachtel is the host and co-founder of CBC Radio’s Writers & Company, now in its twenty-seventh season. She has also published five books of interviews, most recently The Best of Writers & Company (Biblioasis).

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